Environmental Risk in your Backyard (The Discussion of Groundwater Contamination at Farmland in Lawrence, Kansas)

Grace Williams


In the year 1993, the pesticide company, Farmland Industries Inc filed for bankruptcy, and the 467 acres of land and equipment that they owned were given to the city of Lawrence in 2010. Diving into this environmental risk, from the perspective of Matt Bond, a city engineer, explains that the groundwater is only mildly contaminated with nitrogen and ammonia. From working on farmland and taking samples of the groundwater, Grace Williams finds that the groundwater at farmland and surrounding areas are a lot more contaminated than Bond suggests.



Hello, my name is Grace Williams and today I’m going to be discussing the story of an area in Lawrence, Kansas called Farmland. So what is Farmland? Farmland, which is around 467 acres of land, was a land of an old pesticide company that lies in the outskirts of Lawrence, Kansas. Although currently the city of Lawrence owns and maintains this area of land, this area has been a burden to the State of Kansas for 20 plus years. Before the environmental risk of Farmland and was given to the State of Kansas, it was used by the pesticide company Farmland Industries Inc.

Farmland Industries Inc. was actually the largest agricultural corporation in North America until they went bankrupt in the early 2000s. During the Farmlands time production, they created many different nitrogen-based pesticides that were used in crop and livestock production, both domestically and internationally. In the early 2000s, when the company went under, they left a tremendous amount of not only environmental damage to the area of land that they were located on, but also to the community of Lawrence.

Diving deeper into the contamination of Farmland, the primary concern of contamination nowadays is nitrate and ammonia. These two contaminants have been found in groundwater, soil sediments, and the surface and stormwater within the area and the surrounding areas. Over the summer and into the fall, I worked for the city of Lawrence as an environmental intern. Through my time as an intern, I was given a variety of different environmental tasks. One of these tasks included helping maintain and taking samples of Farmland. One of the ways that the city works with Farmland is by taking groundwater and stormwater samples of Farmland. One of the largest concerns that the city of Lawrence faces with the groundwater contamination of this area is a network of pipelines that connect the retention ponds in this area to the Kansas River, which serves as one of the primary water sources for the community of Lawrence. Farmland holds around 30 million gallons of water that have been leaked into the Kansas River.

Through the completion of my own research and through working on Farmland myself, I’ve come across many different viewpoints and opinions on Farmland. For the sake of the podcast today, I’m going to be discussing— focusing on the viewpoint of Matt Bond, a city engineer.

During an interview back in 2010, Bond discussed the environmental risk of Farmland and how the city plans on handling this risk. During this interview, Bond refers to Farmland and states, “We’re not dealing with the Love Canal here. We really aren’t.” Bond then goes on to mention that there will be a quote, unquote, “rebirth of the area, Farmland, to be expected soon.” I found this specific quote to be a rather interesting perspective on Farmland because of how much it truly downplays the environmental and human health risk that Farmland has created and that we’re still dealing with ten years later.

To better understand the story that the environmental risk of Farmland tells, it is important to view the story through a wider, more geopolitical lens.

Stated in O’Lear’s geopolitical book, Environmental Geopolitics, as an approach to examining how environmental themes are used to support geopolitical arguments and realities. It asks how the environment is brought into narratives, practices, and physical realities of power and place. While this may seem like a vague way of viewing a specific environmental story, the lens of geopolitics will allow me to explain the true spatial focus, human impact and environmental interact- environmental and human interactions that occurred during years of Farmland and the aspects of these variables that Bond specifically fails to mention through his claim. So looking at Farmland from a more local focus, I’m able to focus on the direct implications and impacts that this groundwater contamination has caused local residents.

When looking at the local health impacts that Farmland has created, it is important to focus on the lack of water supply that the people that live near Farmland have. Because of the excessive nutrients of nitrogen and ammonia, the surrounding areas of water are not safe for human consumption. The consumption of this water can cause many different upper respiratory problems. This is because too much nitrogen and ammonia in water decrease the amount of oxygen present.

During my time as an intern when going- when going to Farmland, I even had many city workers tell me that the residents of the city that live near Farmland are given bottles of water because they cannot drink the tap water. Digging deeper into the spatial component, the city of Lawrence has worked to contain the contamination of groundwater from Farmland to just the surrounding areas. One way they’ve done this is by making sure no stormwater or groundwater from Farmland enters any of the nearby rivers. This is done by taking stormwater and groundwater samples on the retention ponds on-site in nearby rivers once every couple months.

However, during Bond’s claim, none of this information of groundwater and stormwater sampling retention ponds and bottled water to nearby residence was ever discussed in this claim. By not discussing the details of the contamination and how it actually is impacting the community, Bond is better able to argue that the risk of Farmland is not severe. To gather a better, more well-rounded grip on how serious groundwater contamination is, I found a similar example that occurred in Alma, Michigan.

The risk in Alma is an extreme groundwater pollution issue that is cause major health problems in this area and has been ignored by the local government for many years until it became a larger issue. After years of contamination getting increasingly worse, the state of Michigan entered a consent agreement and the EPA funded a sediment cleanup in the nearby Pine River. After this consent agreement and clean-up was created, the health and well-being of both the residents of Alma, Michigan and the environment increased. While this example in Alma, Michigan has its differences from the groundwater contamination of Farmland, Alma is a great example of what could happen if Farmland- if Farmland took the severe contamination risks seriously and were dealt with in an efficient manner.

Human involvement on Farmland has definitely changed through the years. Because this area of land started off as a profitable farmland, the role of human agency has played a large role in the health and standing in this land. When this land was still profitable for the Farmland Industry— Industries Corporation, the human agency was focusing on the maintenance and profitability of this land.

This being said, the main purpose of Farmland during its years of operation was for economic priorities. Back during the seventies, the most popular form of pesticides was nitrogen-based. This being said, Farmland- Farmland Inc. focused on producing excessively nitrogen-based pesticides. Without proper disposal of these pesticides, the retention ponds on the property began to fill with nitrogen and ammonia.

After the dilapidated area of land was given to the city of Lawrence, the focus shifted to viewing this area as a risk that needed to be contained from the rest of the city. City workers began sampling the groundwater and stormwater, making monthly checkups on the land and started to clean up the dilapidated buildings. While Bond does not mention that Farmland is environmental risk, he made sure during his claim to keep out the details of how serious the contamination levels truly are. By not giving much detail about the actual contamination levels of Farmland, Bond is able to convince his audience that Farmland is nothing to be worried about.

Now, 10 years later, the majority of the public in the city of Lawrence have no idea what Farmland is, let alone the contamination levels of Farmland. Unlike the description that Bond attributes to Farmland, during my time sampling stormwater and groundwater samples at Farmland, I was able to test the nitrogen and ammonia levels of each retention pond at the lab. Although not all were insanely high above normal, I was able to tell right away which ponds had less nitrogen and ammonia, and what ponds had an immense amount. The ponds that had extreme levels of nitrogen and ammonia in them where the ponds with no fish, they were almost perfectly green in color, and there were parts of the pond that were almost bubbling. The fact that there were ponds with those levels of nitrogen and ammonia on this property show that the environmental risk of Farmland is not an issue that can be brushed under the rug any longer.

Bond never once mentions the exact measurements of nitrogen and ammonia in the retention ponds. In the article written by- by the Lawrence Journal World, where Bond discusses his claim, he focused specifically on the quote, unquote, “rebirth of Farmland in fixing the property so that- so that it can be used by the city again.” Through his analysis of Farmland, he does not once mentioned the actual levels of contamination.

Through my research into Matt Bond’s claim and overall background on this topic, I believe that the contamination problems of Farmland are concerning. While Bond states that the groundwater contamination of Farmland is nothing near the contamination in Love Canal, I find that argument to be rather vague. To clarify, Bond does not believe that there is groundwater contamination of Farmland, he— Or he DOES believe that there is groundwater contamination at Farmland, but it he does not think that this contamination needs a lot of focus. Bond also intentionally leaves pieces of information and data about Farmland out of his claim to convince the public that Farmland is not an issue to worry about. Nitrate and ammonia, the two nutrients that are causing groundwater contamination of Farmland, have been found to cause upper respiratory problems for humans when levels are too high in drinking water. They also decrease soil and waterway health.

Through my own investigation and research, I believe that Farmland is in fact something that the public of Lawrence should be concerned and well-informed about.


City of Lawrence. 2021. “Farmland Remediation.” https://lawrenceks.org/farmland-remediation/.

Denchak, Melissa. 2018. “Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know.” Natural Resources Defense Council, Accessed on November 1, 2021. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/water-pollution-everything-you-need-know.

Johnston, Jane. 2020. “One Michigan County Tells the Story of a Nation Plagued by Water Pollution.” Circle of Blue, September 24, 2020. https://www.circleofblue.org/2020/world/one-michigan-county-tells-the-story-of-a-nation-plagued-by-water-pollution/.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment. n.d. Farmland Industries Fertilizer Plant. Topeka, KS: Bureau of Environmental Remediation. Accessed on October 21, 2021. https://www.kdhe.ks.gov/942/Farmland-Industries-Fertilizer-Plant.

Lawhorn, Chad. 2010. “Rebirth at Former Farmland Industries Site Anticipated to Be Soon.” Lawrence Journal World,  November 14, 2010.  https://www2.ljworld.com/news/2010/nov/14/rebirth-former-farmland-industries-site-anticipate/.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Reference for Business. n.d. “Farmland Industries, Inc. – Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Farmland Industries, Inc.” Accessed on October 22, 2021. https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/77/Farmland-Industries-Inc.html.